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Campaigners warn Online Safety Bill is on ‘verge of being unworkable’

(PA)
(PA)

Campaigners are calling on the Government to make further amendments to the Online Safety Bill, warning that in its current form the proposed internet safety laws are “on the verge of being unworkable”.

In a letter sent to Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries and tech minister Chris Philp, the group of 16 organisations say the Bill is currently focused on the wrong areas of regulation.

They argue that, at the moment, it “focuses too heavily on trying to regulate what individual people can say online, rather than getting to the heart of the problem and addressing tech companies’ systems and algorithms that promote and amplify harmful content”.

“As a result, it risks being the worst of both worlds: failing to keep us safe, while also threatening free speech,” the letter says.

It has been signed by the heads of a range of campaign groups, including Hope Not Hate, Fair Vote UK and the 5Rights Foundation.

The Online Safety Bill is currently making its way through Parliament and the Government has published a range of initial proposed amendments to the Bill, including cracking down further on Russian and other state-backed disinformation and giving Ofcom more powers to demand firms take more action to find and tackle child sexual abuse content, including on encrypted services.

But the campaigners have called for a number of further amendments, including measures to strengthen freedom of expression and rights protections, better protect people from marginalised backgrounds and expand transparency requirements on firms to boost access to data for researchers and academics.

In addition, they warn that there are “dangerous loopholes” in the Bill that need closing and call for an amendment to bring paid-for advertising into the scope of the Bill, arguing that extensive research shows content found in ads can cause “the greatest harm online”.

They also call for amendments to future-proof the regulations, such as changing how platforms are defined – doing so based on risk rather than size, and standardising the risk assessments and specific duties with which firms have to comply.

The campaigners said they were “ready and willing” to work with the Government, MPs and Peers on further amendments.

“Taken together, these (amendments) would make the Bill simpler, more effective and easier to enforce,” the letter says.

“They would also put the onus on tech giants to stop harmful content going viral or being promoted to vulnerable children, rather than policing what we say. As the Bill makes its way through parliament, this is the last chance to bake in protections that work.”

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